Today I felt a lot of cognitive turmoil over classism and caste. I’ve felt guilty and conflicted and obliged more than once. I’ve been privileged in my life. I was born in the United States to well off educated parents who in turn provided me with near infinite opportunity. That was the foundation I’ve built on. The money I spend on this trip is money I’ve earned (though I’ve not repaid the financial support I’ve received from family in my life, we’re a pay it forward system). Because I’ve earned through the help of others my money I’ve rarely felt guilt towards it.
We started our day with Agra on the menu and a 6am start. Jenn had decided she wanted to remember the Taj Mahal with great pictures, pictures in which she was wearing her sari from the wedding. I’d throw on my blue kurta to look the part with her. But unfortunately we left the bits in the car and Sayam drove off before we realized we had left them. We didn’t want to call him back so we decided let’s just get up early, he’s always to our hotel 15-30 minutes ahead of time, and we can just grab it, run inside to change and be on our way. I set the alarm for 5:30 but fell behind with getting ready, and not realizing I was behind, showered leaving us with just 9 minutes until we’re supposed to leave. We thought about it briefly, but Jenn decided she didn’t want to derail us with the plan. We already saw how many tourists had gathered in the lobby including one girl in her sari with full hair and makeup; we already felt behind. These aren’t even hardcore travelers, uh oh. This kind of set the tone right off the bat though of mild unpleasantness. We’d both contributed to it by not grabbing the clothes the first time, and then failing to get down to the lobby quickly enough to make up for it.
Our guide was supposed to meet us at the hotel, but wasn’t with Sayam, we had to pick him up. He wasn’t far off our route, but now we’re bleeding time, and 6am is perhaps not quite early enough.
I’m also short on Rupee. We’d been fortunate in that the State Bank doesn’t charge ATM fees, and no one seems to have charged us an exchange fee yet with a competitive exchange rate, but I’d pulled the maximum, and with all the entry fees and tips we’re running low. It’s worth noting I’ve only pulled $155 and exchanged $50 which isn’t much, and we’ve had great luck with being able to use credit which doesn’t have any foreign exchange or transaction fees for us. But here we are on our last day with 1500rp, and the price of admission into the Taj now up from 1000rp to 1500rp… Our guide though offers to pay for us and accept USD so that might just get us to the end of the trip.
My first impression of our guide though is spoiled when he acts offended we’re using a Lonely Planet telling us it’s completely out of date and useless with 20 year old information. True it’s not the latest edition; that one comes out Nov 1st when we’ll have already moved onto Bali, so far it’s not been too far off the mark and they’re incredibly useful when you’re planning even if the cheaper ticket is no longer available. His point was that India is changing so rapidly most advice is off.
We had the option of walking 1.5Km to the Taj, taking an electric vehicle or a horse drawn carriage. Jenn is pretty strict about which horses we put to work when we travel and these ones were not quite up to snuff. Just a little too lean and not clean (not well cared for generally). We take an electric car down to the line and sure enough, a teenage boy whips one of the horses for the return trip. The horse is already prancing in place, but he whips him again both times actually hitting him with a whip. You’re just supposed to crack it, not actually beat the animals with it. We were so glad to have waited for the electric cart.
Upon reaching the line, we split up. Our guide says it will take just 3 minutes once the line starts moving to get into the Taj. Again things are divided between male and female, and again because of the way things are setup the women’s line moves much much slower. It’s not long before we’re split from Jenn, which I REALLY don’t like when traveling abroad, and he has to give her her ticket. On the other side we’re left waiting for a good 30 minutes it feels like before Jenn is through and caught up with us. She’s had a bad go of the line as well, with a pushy Chinese lady constantly trying to cut in line. This further deteriorates the tone of the day.
Jenn here: These freaking lines. That’s as nice as I can put it. Immediately, I did not like being split up from Colin and our guide. All the women around me were with female friends and family. I just had me to hang out with for the hour. In front was a French woman and her daughter, behind the aforementioned cutting Chinese woman and her bff line cutting Chinese woman who were a part of a ~15 tour group of line cutting Chinese women. I had my work cut out for me. Every single line we have stood in, someone has cut us and I am just NOT having it at this point. I’m just one person, what does that matter to her? But the 15 of them in front of me when I’m already falling further and further behind the guys? Hell no. She sneaks up… I gradually work my way in front of her again, trying not to crowd the mother daughter team in front. She does the whole… “Oh is that shop open yet…?” NO. You’re not shopping, you are being sneaky and cutting. So I told her, for the second time, there is a line and you are behind me, get behind. I’m working on my direct speak. I can’t wait to take that training at UM next go round. So now we take a step forward. Colin is out of sight. The men’s line is completely diminished to nothing. All the men are in there having a blast seeing the Taj, alone, sipping tea and taking photos with no women to crowd it. This is my active imagination. I’m halfway hoping Colin waited for me and halfway hoping he got some great shots. We move forward another step and eventually line cutter attempts again. I tell her again. French lady gives me an eye. I know she knows what I’m telling them, but she pretends she only knows French. Typical and understandable. We finally reach the part of the line where it splits in two. One line is for economy tickets and one for the high end tickets. I’m so confused because we were told there are only 750rp tickets now, so can we just go in either? As I’m debating and wishing I could get another opinion, an Indian woman walks up with a group of 10 teenage girls. She asks the man in charge and he tells her the “high value ticket line” is for Indians. She waves all 10 girls up and they jump the line. I am ready to just throw myself onto the sidewalk. F THIS. The French lady gives me another side eye; I hear you lady! Right??? So I stick with her, I can feel she feels the pain. Right before we funnel into this narrower section of handrails, line cutter makes one last dash at which point I have had it. This is the fourth time! I literally shoved my arm in front of her in a snake like move and slide in front of her firmly stating there is a line and she needs to get behind! With her firmly shoved out of the way, I can now breath a tiny bit as at least the handrails are only ONE person wide. No more of this BS. The Indian ladies beside me in the right-hand line inch forward and I’m ready to blow. I’m so alone. I can’t see the guys. These b**ches. Grrr. Then, I don’t know what God took pity on me but my side shoots forward almost 10 feet and I feel so blessed. Karma? Is that you?? I’ve tried to be so fair. I’ve waited my turn and I let all those other people cut all those other times. It’s to the point now where it’s actually hot already. I’m sweating. The air is so thick with pollution. My throat hurts. The sun is glaring. I didn’t even bring my sunglasses because we were supposed to be in the early morning light. Well we were completely off base. We turn the corner to see the screens where the women are hidden as we walk through a metal detector. Seriously, this was for our own metal detectors?? I can’t use that metal detector right next to it that is only for the men?? What would happen if I just threw myself over the line, declared I just don’t care, and please all the men folk, come metal detector me, pat me down, scan me with those security wand things that go off all the time. I just don’t care! My whole Taj experience is about the LINE TO GET IN. Are you serious? It’s now 7 am. I can’t think about it or I get too upset. If we had woken up at 4 am, maybe we would have been at the front of this line (instead of oh I don’t know… 50 people back?) and then we would have seen the Taj at sunrise. Someone was way off in the calculations here. Was our travel agent off on his estimates? He’s been so accurate so far? Did he not realize the women take an hour and the men take 3 minutes? Did the guide not realize? He knew so did he just not care? How have all these men overlooked this VITAL detail to our day? The French woman points to the 750rp on the ticket and says, “time or money, perhaps we get half the time so we can pay half the admission?” I KNEW IT! She does speak English and she’s on top of this bs too! She steps through the detector, I follow, and again I’m waiting for I don’t know what. Our guide pops up and says, ‘oh you don’t have to do that. It’s only for the bag check and you don’t have one!” He explains that of course it takes so much longer for the women because we women like to bring along bags. Um excuse me?? Now I’m livid. I was already having a hard time swallowing this whole separate line thing throughout the trip, none the less that it RUINED my Taj visit and now he’s man-splaining it away as our fault because we have bags. It crossed my mind to give him a lesson but decide it’s a losing battle and would not be received well. I thought about all the men in my past who have discouraged me from causing a ruckus about these things and then I feel guilty for quietly accepting this messed up unfair system. The guide rushes us to take a photo. We are at “the most romantic location in the world” and I can barely breath (smog, is that you?) and choke back tears. I can’t take a photo, I’m crying! Ugh and the one day I wore mascara. Serves me right, right guide? Ugh I can’t stand him. I’m so over this whole experience now. I’m trying so hard to keep it together as not to ruin Colin’s time, but I’m just so upset. Why am I so upset? Am I so hungry I’m hangry? Not really. I mean we didn’t have breakfast yet, but that’s not it. I can’t put my finger on it. Back to Colin….
Inside the Taj is splendid, though the crowd chokingly thick, and the air more so. There is so much pollution in Agra it hangs in the air like a light fog. It reminds me of my time in China, the pollution giving the Li River a sense of atmosphere with its poor atmosphere. We take just a few minutes for shots before being shuffled to the side. Our guide has us on the quick tour. Jenn isn’t in the mood for photos, but I cajole her into taking some with me before we move down a quieter side path.
We’re told a lot of what we already know from the guide book. The Taj was built when a Mughal Emperor fond of showing his wealth lost his 3rd wife and great confidant. She had been an official advisor and mother to 14 of his children. He fills in a couple details like that she would often go to war with him, and was out on campaign with him when she died in child birth. We also learn that the symmetrical buildings on each side are a mosque and a guest house. From here we take some more photos before putting on shoe covers to enter.
The Taj is partly amazing to me in that it’s still standing, and that so much of its inlay work exists, though it’s not clear to me how much of it is original, and how much was refurbished when the English decided that it should be restored. There are no photos from the time, so I doubt I’ll ever know. The inside is much smaller and darker than we expected, partly because its mausoleum and not a living space. The walls are seriously thick. I still don’t understand though how it settling on the banks of the river with its massive weight hasn’t caused issue. We also learn that it’s minarets are canted outwards by 3 degrees so that if there should be an earthquake and they should fall (something that has happened in Turkey many times ), they should fall away from the main structure. Another theory is that when viewed from afar, the perspective makes them look perfectly vertical and symmetrical.
We’re not allowed to take photos inside, though the Indian tourists seem to be able to ignore that rule without problem. I’m tempted to ask our guide “what happens if they catch me, will they just throw me out?” because I’ve now seen the outside and I can take photos with super high ISO and no flash, but I decide it best to just be respectful and not do anything.
The inlay work in the marble fence around what was the original tomb for the emperor and his wife has intricate inlay work which reminds me of what the Ottomans would eventually surpass in Istanbul in Sultanhemet. It’s a style of art perfected by the Muslims while the renaissance painters were perfecting portraiture, perspective and lighting.
Jenn’s note: Originally, the Taj was built just as a tomb for his wife, so her tomb is located perfectly in the center (symmetrical obsession anyone?). Later, the emperor’s daughter had him laid to rest beside her (not symmetrical anymore sadly). How sweet! The guide explains that his tomb is higher and fancier because he’s a man. Excuse me? I’m trembling again. Officially so over India!
From here we get a look at the Yumuna River which is thick with pollution, and last minarets being cleaned for the year of its pollution with light brown clay mixture. We can see both the clean and dirty parts as well as the clay in use.
Our guide insists we have time for the Red Fort, and we’ve blazed through the Taj at maximum speed, partly because there really isn’t that much to see, and partly because our guide has been leading us quickly from one room to the next, barely giving me time to snap pictures. We had been told earlier by Sayam we didn’t have time or we’d hit the bad traffic in New Delhi, and after yesterday’s experience I’m inclined to believe him, but our guide says it’ll just take 45 minutes, and looking at the clock we have finished with the Taj faster than planned by at least that much time.
Outside our guide asks if we’d like to visit a souvenir shop and we politely decline. Meeting up with Sayam he’s also surprised to see us so quickly and is fine with the plan to see the Red Fort. We’re “10 minutes away” according to our guide though it’s more like 20. Again he asks us incredulously if we want to get a marble inlay souvenir saying he’s never had anyone say no. We explain we’re traveling with backpacks, but even if we could get it home in one piece, it’s of little interest to us. It’s far too kitschy and predicable either way, and we’re happy with just our photos and memories. We’re already carrying wedding outfits with us. I’m tired of feeling pressured by him, and I suspect he’s getting a cut from whatever store owner. Sayam is very polite and doesn’t chime in.
Jenn: Ooh another opportunity to practice my direct speak! Normally, I try to be polite. Sayam is such a great role model this way, but our guide today? I feel like he has done nothing to earn our respect or politeness and this is just over the line. We are the customers and I feel like he’s trying to take us for a ride. I just take the blunt route, “we do not see value in the marble; do not take us there.” It felt so good!
I’m worried we’ve seen so many forts this one is a waste of time and money, but Jenn of all people is glad we went. Before the trip when I’d shown her the draft itinerary she ask “what is there to see there, another fort?” but she’s found the difference in architecture and history more interesting than she expected, and is finding it fun to draw comparisons between the ones we’ve seen in Jodhpur, Jaipur, Ranthambore, and now Agra. The fort itself is the largest in the country, and is still a garrison for a battalion of troops which keeps a large portion of the fort off limits to tourists. We can see the Taj from here, 3km away, sort of. The smog is so thick we can only make out an outline, and I think we have maybe 4km of visibility at best. Much of the defensive tactics are the same used by other forts, and this one like the others has a royal palace with baths and spaces for the concubines. This one was started first, but like the others has evolved over time.
After we finished back in the car we paid our guide, and gave him a measly 220 rp tip, basically just the change. He then went on this lecture about how everyone has 1000rp notes in their wallets these days and that 500rp is the smallest note really used. That he’s well compensated at 5000rp for the morning, but that we needed to keep our driver “fed”. At first I take this literally saying we’ve tried to buy him lunch but he won’t eat with us. Our guide persists that he doesn’t eat because he’s saving every penny for his family, that life is hard her. At this point I’m calling bullshit. First off, he doesn’t know we’ve been tipping Sayam at upper range of what Narendra told us to tip when we ask. Second we can’t hardly use 1000rp notes we get from banks, and the ATMs spit out 500s which themselves are hard to use! When we tipped Sayam 1000rp he looked ecstatic, and I can see what other Indians are tipping, and it’s less than we are across the board. Thirdly if we buy Sayam lunch, we’re not taking it out of his tip, it’s an additional gesture of thanks for how amazing he’s been for us to this point. I’ve had a bad taste in my mouth with this guide from the word go, and he’s only made our experience worse, that is why he’s only getting 220rp. Now I think I’m taking this worse than I should. He’s projecting his frustration with his tip onto Sayam and assumes we’re treating him the same even though it’s worlds apart. But this hits a raw nerve, and that’s why I’ve reacted in my mind the way I have. I feel guilty that I can ask Sayam to drive us to a ritzy restaurant, but he can’t join us. That service here is so one sided. I’m used to some expectation that I’m going to make it easy on the person serving me because they’re a person too. But here that’s not the case, despite how many tourists he deals with there is this deference that is profoundly deep and he for a split second always seems slightly lost when we don’t wait for him to open our doors, or ask him to carry our bags. It’s the same with the bell hops, and many waiters. I feel a bit lost right there with him sometimes for the same reason. I think to some degree this difference comes from the rigid caste system. It’s left me feeling guilty and frustrated.
Back at our hotel we have a pleasant breakfast though my mind is still on the social conflict. I try the French toast for a second time after looking at the Dim Aloo and thinking it too watery. They don’t use cinnamon and vanilla either here. The omelet is better.
Back in our room Jenn showers and I pack. I have all of 10 minutes left on my internet and I see USC beat #3 Utah! I can’t wait to see highlights. I also talk to Maneesh and come up with a name for our fictional Indian Tropic Air clone. Curry Air. Get it? Like Courier? Heh.
We’re out by 10:30 and on the road. It’s expected to take us until possibly 5pm to get there, and we’re probably going just to the airport, but I have hopes that since it’s Sunday we can do something in Delhi. Jenn wants to go to the Imperial for Tea but we haven’t pushed Sayam on it yet, and decide to wait until we’re close.
Sayam says we can stop at some special location on the way if we are interested and asks why we spent so little time in the Taj. We explain about the guide and about being a bit underwhelmed. He says he advised Narendra we didn’t need a guide, and we told him we think it made the experience worse for us, we’d rather have just done it on our own like most everyone else. I’m figuring the place he’s suggesting on the way is like halfway between Agra and Delhi but as soon as we cross the river he pulls over and asks if we want to go inside and says it’s a mini Taj. Sure, why not.
Calling it a mini Taj is absolutely accurate, it shares much of the layout down to the symmetrical buildings on each side and the design of the inlay. Ultimately it lacks some of the Persian influence in the domes and a few other queues, but you can see it clearly as a prototype and I’m glad we stopped to have a look. It was built 1 generation before the Taj.
The rest of the drive to Delhi is on a special express toll road that has barbwire fencing on the sides to keep the livestock out, high speed limits, and motorbikes and pedi-rickshaws are not allowed, just cars and trucks. It’s like the super highway and I’m surprised how slow Sayam drives it, just 70kph when the speedlimit is about twice that. We ask if we can go to the Imperial for High Tea, and he says ok, but he’s clearly a little bummed. It comes out later in conversation he’s planning on going all the way to Jaipur tonight and is hoping to avoid any dangers with highway robbery on the way. He’s now driving 85kph, but we make a stop along the way for a break. He disappears after the bathroom and I think he’s getting himself food, but he’s not gone that long. We buy him a coke with ours and now have 30rp in our wallets.
New Delhi itself is actually pretty nice and completely nuked my expectations. In my mind I was expecting something like Agra, but scaled up to even more hectic crazy proportions. But it’s actually fairly green with lots of public spaces, many of the roads are divided, no one is driving on the wrong side when they’re not, Sayam even tells us talking on the phone while driving is prohibited and the police crack down hard on anyone without a DL (Delhi) license plate for it. It’s much cleaner than anywhere we’ve been and feels like many international cities. We go through the city center without too much trouble into the diplomatic quarter and enter the Imperial. Like the Clarks Shiraz last night and the Taj in Lucknow, the security is tight. Our car is checked for bombs with a mirror underneath and in our trunk. Like the others we’re asked to go through a metal detector and like the others it goes off but they look at us and wave us through. Sayam says he’ll just wait for us here so whenever we’re done. The guilt sets in again. He’s been a little shorter since we asked him to drive through Delhi center and I think he’s got to be hungry! Or hangry?
Inside everything is in the colonial style to such a high standard of quality. India has such an unusual relationship with colonialism. Here in the heart of their capital is a hotel that basically glorifying it. Much of the stuff we’ve seen, like the Residency also look favorably on English colonialism. We’ve asked our driver his thoughts and he immediately brings up the positive stuff, the railroads, telegraph, roads, schools and social services and shakes off the negativity as just that no one is every happy with their ruler. I get the impression that no small portion of Indians feel like it was positive overall, but India had grown up and was ready to lead itself and had no hard feelings. There is an added dimension that much of India was ruled by Turkic/Mongol Muslims in the form of the Mughals before that, and by some standards ineffectually. If nothing else it’s a complex relationship.
We sit down for tea that will cost us nearly $60 when we’re out of here in the country where our driver is probably spending 60rp for a meal once to twice a day. I don’t feel any better. This is the fanciest hotel I’ve ever been in. This is not our set. This is for those an economic class above and we’re interlopers. It’s like we’ve reversed roles for the day to some degree. I mean the first thing you see is a Chanel store inside. Jenn and I have a quiet conversation about it. I feel like we’re trying to act a part. One conclusion I come to is I’ve always traveled as the middle class in any country I’ve been in. Sometimes that’s roughing it, sometimes that’s not. It’s comfortable, no one really ever resents you because you’re not so far from them, you’re like them just with a bit more to spend perhaps. But this trip, basically the entirety of it we’re the upper class. We’re going to nice restaurants at times, staying at nice places, we have a private driver and car for the entire India leg right to the airport drop off.
Tea was delicious, I chose an Assam like I’ve enjoyed in the past and I think it’s my favorite varietal, not too astringent or bitter. The food was the best we’ve had this trip, with salmon kebabs, potato croquets, chocolate eclairs, caprese sandwiches, cheese and date skewers, chocolate mousse and all sorts of other goodies. We eat until we’re full, then move onto dessert. As we pay for the bill we ask if they can have some sandwiches for takeout, and they say they don’t normally, but relent and pack us four sandwiches.
We meet Sayam an hour after we arrive as we estimated and give him the extra sandwiches, all vegetarian as he is vegetarian. He thanks us. As we’re telling him they’re vegetarian and delicious and he’s thanking us he’s backing up, but another driver in a black Skoda parked up not 2 feet behind him. The car behind honks, I swivel my head and see it happening and say “stop stop stop stop” but then there is the sound of bending plastic bumper… I feel like I just can’t do anything right. I’m suddenly aware how many ways there are for a driver in his position to lose money. To tickets, to accidents, and any number of other things. I can imagine him losing every dollar he made in the last 5 days. The Skoda driver speeds off and once we’re out of the parking lot he gets out and looks at the car and says “no problem” but I’m not convinced.
Every day along this trip we’ve had more than a handful of times where I’m surprised we haven’t been in an accident. Somehow he’s kept us out of danger and safe. Many times we’ve hit the brakes hard enough to hit the seatbelt stop.
We sit relatively in silence until we’re jammed up in traffic because an official motorcade is going by and has blocked traffic. We’re just past the Presidential Estate.
At the airport I get to see the damage, I see a black line and I hope its paint off the Skoda, the color matches and that should just buff out. We thank him again and give him an additional tip.
We have a lot of time until our flight and they won’t even take our baggage for an hour. We re-sort some of our stuff and go through immigration. There we meet a nice English couple on a long trip basically around the world finishing in Los Gatos, California. They had a lot more time than we had and made it all the way to the border with Pakistan to see the ceremonial closing of the boarder which has become a bit of a tourist attraction. They have a lot of interesting stories and are off to Australia and New Zealand next. We chat about line cutters and any number of things and it feels cathartic.
Tonight we fly from 10pm to 6am to Singapore losing three hours, and then 8:30-11am to Bali losing another hour I believe.